Loss of Appetite in Dogs - What To Do When Your Dog Won't Eat

It's hard to know what to do when your dog stops eating. A can be worrisome and frustrating at the same time. Do you take a wait-and-see approach, or run the dog in to see the veterinarian? Inappetence or anorexia in dogs can be an especially stressful experience if it continues for any length of time. Here are some tips on how figure out of the problem is more likely behavioral or medical, and what to do to get your dog to start eating again.

Fussy Eaters

While it's true that most dogs love to eat, there are dogs who are born 'finicky' or who have developed fussy or picky eating habits over time. Most of us are used to dogs who love to eat - but believe it or not, there really are dogs who just aren't enthusiastic about food (I know ... I have one of them!).

Let's say your dog is turning away from his meals. If you offer your dog one of his favorite foods that he doesn't get to eat often, will he eat it? Will he devour it, or does he reluctantly pick at it? Dogs have food preferences just like we do, and they can get bored of foods too, especially if they eat the same thing every meal, every day.

It's probably not much of a concern when a fussy dog who tends to pick at his food, decides to turn his nose up at a new food or at a food he enjoys less. You know how your dog normally eats - how much he eats, how enthusiastically (or not) he attacks his meals, and what types of food he likes to eat. A drastic change in any of these things could be a signal that something is wrong.

Causes of Inappetence in Dogs

Many things can cause a dog to lose their appetite. Some reasons for inappetence are physical while others are behavioral.

Non-Medical Causes of Inappetence

  • Switching to a new food can cause dogs to turn their noses up at a meal. Although many dogs are happy to eat anything that comes their way, dogs also have food preferences and the new food may not appeal to them. If you've just switched to a new food and your dog isn't eating well (or at all), try offering them some of the old food. If he eats it, then he's telling you that he has definite food preferences.

  • Any new additives or supplements may be off-putting to your dog. Lots of pet owners add things like glucosamine supplements or fish oils to their pet's meals, especially as their dogs get older. Dogs might not like the smell or taste, and may refuse their meal if they sense these additives. Try removing any supplements from their food (feed them separately) and see if they eat their meal normally again.

  • Attention-seeking behavior: some dogs learn that they can get more attention from their owners if they refuse to eat. These dogs realize that owners might fuss over them, give them extra cuddles, try to hand-feed them, or offer them different (tastier!) tidbits in an effort to get their pet to eat. You may have to harden your heart against their pleading looks and be prepared to take away their food if they don't eat it within a certain time frame (it's okay to offer it again later - and remove it again if they don't eat). Don't offer any other food, snacks, or treats. Eventually the dog will come to realize that he needs to eat his meal when fed.

  • Dogs who are fed too much may be fussy at mealtimes. Sometimes the pet owner isn't aware of how much his dog is being fed, especially if other members of the household (or guests) are sneaking food or extra treats to the dog. Dogs may sometimes steal food on their own too. If they've happily stuffed themselves with their stolen treasures, they may be less inclined to eat their regular meal.

  • Hot weather. Dogs sometimes eat less when it's hot, just like people do. If your dog isn't showing any other changes in behavior, it could just be that it's been unusually hot and your dog doesn't feel like having a big meal.

  • Decrease in exercise. Being active helps to keep the appetite stimulated. If you've run into a period where you haven't been able to exercise your dog as much as he's used to, it could be that he's just not as hungry since he hasn't had a chance to burn off his usual amount of energy.

  • Stress can cause a decrease in appetite. Some dogs are the super-mellow, go-with-the-flow type. Others find seemingly minor changes stressful. Has something changed in your household - a new pet, visiting guests, a change in routine?

  • Sometimes it's just the process of aging that makes food less palatable. Pet owners might see a gradual decline of their dog's interest in eating.

  • Although relatively rare, food that's gone bad can also be an issue. Let's say your dog has been eating his regular food normally. A new bag (or can, container, or whatever) of the same food has just been opened and he refuses to eat it. It could be that the food has gone moldy or been contaminated in some way. Get another bag of the same food and see if he'll eat it - if so, the other bag of food has probably gone bad and should be returned or thrown out.

Medical Reasons for Inappetence

  • Dental issues. Good dental care is more than just a cosmetic issue; it helps to keep our pet's mouths healthy and pain-free. It's hard to eat when your mouth hurts. Dogs may be hungry but unable or unwilling to eat because of pain from broken or abscessed teeth or infected gums. Dogs with dental pain may be reluctant to pick up food; they might roll the food around in their mouths or drop it; and they may refuse to eat hard foods.

  • Pain. Pain anywhere in a pet's body can make them less willing to eat, simply because they're also less willing to move around. Arthritis is a common condition, especially in older dogs, that can result in a decrease in appetite. Watch for signs of pain in your pet and talk to your vet about how best to manage the pain, whether it's with pain medication, physical therapy, or changes made around the house to make it easier for your dog to get around.

  • Dehydration. Being dehydrated affects the whole body and can make a dog feel seriously unwell. Dehydration can be cause when dogs don't drink well (whether due to pain or illness), or aren't drinking enough for the conditions (hot weather, extended exercise). Pull up the skin in between your dog's shoulder blades; the skin should normally snap back into place, but in a dehydrated dog it stays "tented" longer than normal. Dogs may need some help from the vet with subcutaneous fluids to get them rehydrated and feeling well again (and eating!).

  • Infections, including ear infection. Ear infections are notoriously painful. Chewing can make it more painful, especially crunching down on hard food.

  • Tumor or obstruction in the mouth. Anything in the mouth can make it difficult or painful for the dog to eat, so he may try to avoid doing so.

  • Illness. Some medical conditions (such as kidney or liver disease) can cause nausea, making your dog not feel like eating. Other illnesses, such as cancer or heart disease, may cause inappetence simply because the dog doesn't feel well enough to eat.

  • Medications can cause inappetence as a side effect. Read the educational insert that comes with the medication, or check with your vet. Don't ever stop a medication without discussing it with your vet first. Talk to your vet about alternatives if you suspect that the medication is causing your dog to lose his appetite.

  • Dementia or senility. Older dogs can experience behavioral changes, including dementia, which may cause him to not want to eat - or he may just "forget" to eat. Increased anxiety is sometimes a part of dementia and it another reason why the dog may be reluctant to eat.

When Is Inappetence a Cause for Concern?

Dogs often hide discomfort or pain. Missing a meal here or there probably isn't a cause for worry - assuming that there aren't any other changes in behavior - but if in doubt, always take your pet to the vet for assessment. If it's something minor causing the inappetence, then no harm done ... but if it's a medical issue that needs attention, then you've caught it early and treatment can begin. Here are some signs that inappetence may require a trip to the vet:

  • Your dog's eating habits change significantly and he eats less than normal for an extended period. A missed meal isn't necessarily cause for concern if your dog is normally a picky eater anyways; however, a missed meal for a dog that tends to inhale anything and everything is cause for concern.

  • Your dog has other symptoms in addition to the inappetence. If he's vomiting, has diarrhea, is depressed or lethargic, is panting excessively, pacing or can't seem to rest comfortably, appears to be in pain, or has any other
    physical or behavioral changes, take him to the vet.

  • Your dog is steadily losing weight (assuming this is unintentional, and not because you've put your dog on a diet). Older dogs especially tend not to have a lot of reserve body weight.

Cat owners should not take a wait-and-see approach if the cat stops eating. A cat's refusal to eat can lead to fatty liver disease, a dangerous condition. Cats who aren't eating should be immediately brought to the vet for assessment.

Treatment for Inappetence

Your veterinarian can prescribe appetite stimulants to help your dog start eating again. Getting your dog to eat is a good first step; however, the underlying reason for the inappetence (if it can be determined) should be addressed.

Keep good notes if you can. Write down when your pet stops eating, anything that's changed (a change in diet, environment, exercise, habits, behavior, etc). Note the things you've tried to get him to eat, and whether or not you were successful. These notes can help a vet make an assessment and order any tests that may be necessary to help him diagnose any underlying issue.

Some medications can also cause inappetence as a side effect. Your veterinarian may be able to suggest alternative medication, or perhaps alternative therapies (for example, acupuncture treatments to help with pain issues).

Encouraging Your Dog To Eat

Once your dog has had any underlying medical issues addressed, it's time to figure out how to get him to eat. Your dog's appetite may never return to what was previously considered "normal" - but it's possible to figure out what he'll eat willingly.

  • Try to get them to eat even just a tiny amount, at first. Place this little bit of food on the floor next to them, or give it from your hand if you have to. Some dogs, once they've eaten a little, their appetites appear to be triggered and they'll start eating more.

  • Experiment with different diets. A dog's food preferences can change over time. Try different brands of food, as well as different types - if you feed kibble, add some canned food, dehydrated food, homemade diets, or raw. If your dog primarily eats crunchy food, he might prefer softer foods now.

  • Use enhancements, like "gravy" or toppers, freeze-dried tidbits of raw, fresh veggies (if your dog enjoys them), a small splash of low-sodium broth, etc.

  • Serve food slightly warmed. Heating up the food enhances the smell and can entice a reluctant eater to start eating.

  • Serve food cold. Dogs who are feeling nauseous tend to find strong smells too overpowering. Keeping the food cold helps to minimize the smell.

  • Give food in small amounts, multiple times a day. If your dog is generally feeling unwell, his usual larger quantity of food at mealtimes may be too overwhelming.

  • Rotate foods to maintain their interest. Figure out which foods your dog still likes to eat (or at least, is willing to eat). Offer a different food from this list at every meal.

  • Use a different bowl - or a plate. It sounds dumb, but this small thing can be helpful for some dogs. Or put down a towel and place a small amount of food on it for him. Sometimes older or ill dogs prefer to continue resting, and having their food on the ground makes it easier for them to eat and thus also makes it more likely that they'll do so.

  • Use an elevated feeder if your dog is arthritic and has trouble bending down (note, an elevated feeder isn't appropriate for dogs who are prone to bloat - talk to your vet). Just the simple matter of making it easier for your dog to reach his bowl can make him more likely to eat.

  • Some dogs will vomit up bile if their stomachs are empty for too long (typically, they'll vomit in the morning after fasting all night). Give a little snack before bed if this is the case.

  • Don't force-feed your dog. He may associate the negative experience with food, making the inappetence problem worse.

  • If need be, use a nutritional supplement such as NutriCal.

Make sure to follow your vet's instructions. Dogs with medical conditions may need to be on special diets. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why a dog stops eating. Regardless, be patient and persistent as it can take some time to figure out a way to get your dog to start eating regularly once again.